In the summer of 2010, Russia experienced its highest temperatures on record. Moscow was shrouded in a veil of smog from peat fires on the capital’s outskirts. People were wearing masks; the daily death rate had doubled. It was a peculiar, unnerving welcome to a country that had fascinated me since childhood. One evening I was in an overpriced coffeehouse with a group of other American students. We were talking loudly in English, as Americans tend to do, and a middle-aged man tried to interject in vaguely British English. “Why are you studying Russian instead of Chinese?” he asked with naked condescension.
In fact, Russia may not have China’s economic clout, but it will remain a country to watch on the world stage. Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered from my own experiences there, this is for all the worst reasons: racism, messianic nationalism, and fervent anti-Americanism.
Since that first trip, I’ve twice visited Russia on tourist visas. My Russian has vastly improved, and from conversations in taxis, third-class trains, bars, and people’s homes, I’ve formed a rough conception of the Putin-era zeitgeist. The countless well-meaning, generous, and hospitable people I’ve met need only honorable mention here. Russian society’s flaws, rather than its virtues, are what will keep the country relevant for generations to come. Brezhnev-era internationalist cant aside, Russia is a deeply racist country that holds minorities in open contempt — not quite the equivalent of Jim Crow, but still distressing. The default names for Central Asians and Caucasians are the derogatory churki and khachi, for Ukrainians khokhly and for Jews zhidy; but don’t be surprised if you hear “black a**es” to refer to swarthier ethnics, including Armenians. Granted, Russian nativism is at some level understandable: If there is ever to be rule of law in Russia, they might start by enforcing the border and deporting illegal immigrants from former Soviet republics. (This does not apply, however, to Chechens and other North Caucasians. Chechnya elected to separate from Russia, but Yeltsin and then Putin reduced that republic to rubble. Now, when Chechens flee to live in the capital of the country that successfully fought to keep them, they’re treated like foreign invaders, but they can’t be deported because they are still Russian citizens. Internet memes are a reliable barometer of youth culture in any country, and the level of racism on the humor pages on VK, Russia’s social network, is shocking to anyone accustomed to Western racial attitudes, and a disconcerting sign of the future of ethnic relations in Russia.
I’m of Mexican extraction, and the most offended I’ve ever been in my life was when an old man in Sochi told me I looked like Obama — offended not because I’m not an Obama supporter but because I look nothing like him, and the man was clearly treating all dark-pigmented people as interchangeable. Common graffiti include swastikas and slogans like Rossiya dlya russkikh. This means “Russia for Russians,” but the American equivalent would be “America for whites”; rossiyskiy refers to any national of the multiethnic Rossiya (“Russia,” as opposed to the old “Rus’”), whereas russkiy means ethnic Russian. This nuance is lost in translation. “F*** the Caucasus” also seems to be a popular slogan. The most colorful but most sinister graffito I’ve seen said, “Yid Satanists control Russia, and Putin is their puppet.” In fact, anti-Semitism is conventional wisdom. I met a farmer in the Udmurt Republic who complained about Jews in Moscow robbing the people. I wanted to say that I had no idea Putin, who has made much of his fortune by dispossessing Jews like Khodorkovsky, was Jewish, but I held my tongue.
Several times I’ve been put on trial for my nationality and my country’s alleged sins. One particularly rude woman on a train to Sochi spent hours haranguing me about America’s evils, which ranged from our invasion of Iraq to McDonald’s making her obese. She looked bewildered when I told her that in America it is generally considered impolite to spoil an acquaintanceship by bringing up politics and that we would never verbally attack a foreign visitor’s country. When I told her Americans don’t cringe in terror at the mention of Russia, she grew even angrier, cursing Putin for his weakness. This same woman thought Gorbachev was an American spy and shouted, “Let the Chinese eat their sushi!”
Her exciteability, sentiment, and ignorance were hardly exceptional. During a lunch break on a tourist excursion in Sochi, a vacationer half-asked me if the U.S. and Russia are enemies. “We don’t worry too much about Russia,” I said, trying to be politic. “We feel more threatened by Iran, North Korea, China . . .”
“I beg of you, how do they threaten you?” he howled before I could finish. Not up to delivering a lecture on the basics of geopolitics to a middle-aged man with a Soviet hangover, I told him that Americans typically aren’t comfortable discussing politics when they first meet people.
“Why, are you afraid of your government?” he asked, in apparent earnestness.
Before I first visited Russia, I took it for granted that Russians were grateful for the collapse of Communism. In fact, for most Russians this simply isn’t the case. The vast majority of Russians living today are Soviet-born and Soviet-educated, and among them nostalgia for the Soviet Union and burning resentment at the loss of superpower status are powerful. Even young Russians, who may care nothing for Marxism-Leninism, envy their parents for having lived in a superpower that made the world tremble. The cult of the Great Patriotic War is recalcitrant. It’s the greatest single obstacle to Russian democracy. In the eyes of many Russians, Stalin’s cruelty was vindicated, or at least rendered irrelevant, by his leadership in the war, which gave collectivism and authoritarianism a saving veneer of heroism and nobility in the Russian psyche. “No matter how bad Stalin may have been,” a student in Chelyabinsk told me, “we don’t forget that it was under his leadership that we defeated the enemy, saving Europe’s a** in the process, and probably America’s, too.” Russians take macabre, gruesome pride in their 20 million casualties in that war but are largely unaware that many of those deaths resulted from Stalin’s stubbornness, incompetence, and merciless disregard for the lives of his own people, soldiers and civilians alike.
Pessimism about Putin’s Russia has made people yearn all the more for the bad old days. Putin has been known to praise Stalin’s leadership, but that’s not the only way he has helped rehabilitate the infamous Georgian. “These are the worst days in Russia’s history,” a Nizhny Tagil woman in her 20s told me. “Things were better under Stalin. People had everything. The only thing was, if you spoke out, they killed you.”
Many Russians suffer from Holocaust envy. Why all the fuss about 6 million Jews, the reasoning goes, when over three times as many Russians lost their lives to fascism? Explaining this alleged injustice of historical memory, an old Muscovite pointed out to me that 1 million perished in the siege of Leningrad alone, presumably making the death camps small fry. Perversely, many Russians seem to think that their triumph over fascism entitles them to imitate fascism. I asked a college student if he would support a politician who wanted to gas Central Asians and Caucasians. He said yes. I’ll grant him the benefit of the doubt as to whether he was serious.
Such disregard for the lives of “others” is not unusual. “Why should we care what Assad uses our weapons for?” shrugged an old man in St. Petersburg. “America has bases all over the world — we need to keep Tartus at any cost.” Even nonconformist Russians think in nationalist, great-power terms. This man was a Pentecostal and thus, in the eyes of most of his compatriots, an apostate and cult member. Nevertheless, he was staunchly anti-American and pro-Putin.
I took a train trip to Kislovodsk with a fascinating old-timer who had spent his life in and out of reformatories and prisons. His major crimes: first being the grandson of a kulak, then being unemployed (known in the Soviet legal code as parasitism). He was an anti-Semitic populist who believed both the American and Russian governments were the dutiful servants of a global cabal of warmongers, though the American government was the chief offender. “They’ve started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it looks like they’re about to start one in Syria.” This was a curious and flippant assumption, considering that the Syrian civil war had been raging for well over a year. Apparently deaths in the Third World count only when the West is involved.
So much criticism of Russia necessitates a measure of criticism of America. I have flown in to Washington, D.C., New York, and Salt Lake City on the way back from Russia, and each time I found myself interrogated by our customs agents, who were no doubt merely doing what their job required. “Why did you go to Russia? Who do you know there? How do you know the language? Did you see Snowden? What do you do for a living? So you say you just graduated from college — which one?” The implication that I was a traitor was a painful blow, considering the multiple occasions I had defended America’s name while in Russia. I doubt that this process thwarts many Russian spies, and it raises the question of why we allow Russian consulates to issue tourist visas to Americans in the first place. I could be wrong, but I somehow doubt that Americans arriving from China, our great trade and business partner, are treated with such suspicion.
— Cody Boutilier is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.
Editor’s Note: The author responded to criticism of this essay on the Corner.